Southern Spain is an intriguing anomaly. It’s chock-full of the culture and activities most famously associated with Spain (such as bullfighting and Flamenco dancing), yet when you set foot in one of the Moorish alcazars located within this region, you are instantly teleported to an Arabic world. The Moors were North African Muslims who invaded Spain in 711 A.D. and controlled many areas of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries to come. Their legacy and influence is still boldly apparent in many cities throughout Andalucía, including Seville, Granada, and Córdoba. Each of these cities is home to a lavish architectural icon of the Moorish reign: the Alcázar of Seville, the Alhambra of Granada, and the Mezquita of Córdoba. The Alcázar and the Alhambra are both mesmerizingly lush palace-fortresses, while the Mezquita is a fascinating fusion of Mosque and Cathedral. All three of these structures exhibit an incredible amount of ornamental detail and sumptuous aesthetics; each is as much a work of art as it is a historical landmark.
The Alcazar, Seville
The Alcázar of Seville is undeniably fit for a king. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has housed nobility for hundreds of years and is still used by the Spanish royal family to this day, making it the oldest active royal palace. Architecturally it is flush with signature Moorish designs. Labyrinths of geometric patterns sprawl across the walls and ceilings with captivating precision. In many of the rooms you will find decorative zellige, a traditional form of Islamic tile work commonly found in Morocco. Most of the hallways and perimeters are lined with dramatic arches and elegant adornments, and the widespread presence of verdant gardens and fountains causes you to feel as if you were in some sort of secret oasis.
The Alhambra, Granada
In Granada, the Alhambra sits atop a tall, steep hillside—as if to keep watch over the entire city. This location provides some pretty incredible vistas, and at night the entire fortress is illuminated, creating a powerful orange beacon for all to see. From the outside it appears boxy—a durable stone stronghold with little artistic flair. Yet within the walls is a spellbinding array of colorful tiles, intricate ceramic paneling (arabesques), flowing water, and pruned greenery. Arabesques are a form of Islamic art in which weaving linear patterns and precise geometrical forms are used to meticulously decorate a surface. Muqarnas, which are also taken from the Islamic tradition, can be found on the undersides of many arches and domes within the Alhambra. Muqarnas is an ornate form of architectural vaulting in which a symmetrical repetition of pockets and stalactite-like protrusions create a sort of jagged honeycomb appearance. The arabesque panels, muqarnas, and zellige all come together to produce a truly jaw-dropping display. In addition to the architectural décor, the Alhambra’s premises are also filled with vibrant gardens and soothing fountains, instilling the same oasis-like effect found in the Alcázar of Seville.
The Mezquita, Cordoba
If Andalucía is an anomaly, then the Mezquita of Córdoba is a dichotomy within the anomaly. This church-turned-mosque-turned-cathedral is perhaps the clearest embodiment of the religious duality of Spain’s history. The site of the Mezquita was originally a Catholic church under the Visigoths, dating as far back as 600 A.D. After the Moorish invasion in 711, the church was briefly converted into a shared facility that included both Christian and Muslim halves. However, in 784 the Christian half was bought out by Emir Abd ar-Rahman I and a grand mosque was built in its place—but the story doesn’t end there. In 1236 Córdoba reverted back to Christian rule following the conquest by King Ferdinand III. The mosque was converted back to a Catholic church and there were many Christian alterations and additions made in the years to come, including chapels, cathedral bells, and a large cathedral nave. With all these changes, the end result is somewhat disorienting. Distinctively Christian and Muslim features stand side-by-side in an outlandish yet spectacular amalgam. If you’ve ever taken a trip through Europe, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some pretty impressive cathedrals. But how often do you see a cathedral inside a mosque? Or is it a mosque inside a cathedral? Either way, Córdoba’s Mezquita is sure to impress.
While this list is not exhaustive, the Alcázar of Seville, Alhambra of Granada, and Mezquita of Córdoba are certainly pinnacles of Moorish splendor in Andalucía. All three are highly accessible, and a trip through Southern Spain would be lacking without a visit to at least one of these sites. Of course, even if you make it to all of these architectural wonders, there is still so much more to do in Andalucía. Sample some tapas, attend a Sevilla FC game, enjoy the sounds of classical guitar…the list goes on, which is why Southern Spain is such an attractive destination.